Numbers: More Rules, Rituals, and a Troublesome Command

 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—  then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing. The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord.  Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water.  After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse.  Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you.  But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—  here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell.  May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries. Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water.  He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar.  The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse.  If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

There are a lot of strange rules and rituals in Numbers, but this is one of the most troublesome. According to this passage, God prescribed a kind of trial-by-ordeal ritual for a wife suspected of infidelity. If the wife was innocent, nothing would happen. If she was guilty, she would miscarry and/or be unable to carry future pregnancies to term.  Regardless of how this was supposed to work, it seems to raise a troublesome question. Does God command and/or cause the termination of a pregnancy under certain circumstances?

I won’t tell you what I think this passage means, but I will share what I do when I come across disturbing or confusing passages in the Bible.  Believe me, this one isn’t the only one.

1. Read the passage in several different translations. Translating Hebrew and Greek into English isn’t an exact science, and even in the same language, the meaning of many words changes over time. Then there are euphemisms, the meanings of which might have been clear to ancient readers, but are incomprehensible to readers from a different time and place. (Sort of like a Federation Standard speaker trying to understand Tamarian, The Universal Translator wasn’t much help to Captain Picard.) In this particular passage, where some translations have the phrase “her womb shall miscarry, other translations have the more literal “her thigh shall fall away”. What’s that supposed to mean?

2. Try to understand what the passage might have meant in its original social and historical context. The Bible was written over many centuries and contains oral traditions that predate written language. Numbers, along with the other books of Moses, was written in a Middle Eastern, Bronze Age, patriarchal society where women and children were considered more as property than as people. It was very important that a man knew his children were biologically his own, because property was passed down through the male line.

3. Consult commentaries and online resources to see what others have had to say about the passage. This is a good way to pick up on the historical and cultural context, as well as different translation options. If possible, try to read several different opinions, including those that go against what you want the passage to say.  Don’t just look for articles that back up what you already think.

4. Let the Bible comment on the Bible. What other passages in the Bible speak on this subject? Do they confirm or contradict your understanding of what this one is saying? In general, clear or repeated ideas trump obscure or isolated ones. This approach works best when you read the whole Bible consistently and repeatedly over a long period of time, preferably using a different translation each time.

5. The criterion by which the Bible should be interpreted is Jesus. If something is confusing or disturbing, look to the life and teachings of Jesus as your guide. As a Christian, I believe that God showed himself to us most fully in the person of Jesus. The Bible shows us a record of human interactions with and understandings of God, but it is not a fourth person in the Trinity. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. In this instance, I remember that Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, but protected her from those who would condemn her for her sin. And that’s good news.

Leviticus: It’s the Principle of the Thing

 

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.  You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. -Leviticus 9:13
 
What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it -Rabbi Hillel

Leviticus extends the concept of ethical monotheism begun in Exodus. If there is only one God, and that God is an ethical being, how does he expect humans to behave?

Many people who intend to “read the Bible through” get bogged down in Leviticus, but I think it’s important to read the whole book, especially when prominent religious figures quote verses from it, generally in order to condemn people not of their tribe. At first glance, it’s not as interesting to read as Genesis and Exodus because there aren’t many stories, or at least not stories in the way we generally think of stories. A great deal of attention is given to proper ceremonial worship involving animal and vegetable sacrifices that are seem quite alien to our world today. Although Leviticus describes some rules that lay a good ethical foundation for living in community with other human beings (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat) there are others that seem quite strange.(don’t wear clothing made of mixed fibers, don’t sow two kinds of grain in the same field, don’t cut the corners of your beard)

The first ten chapters give detailed instructions for different kinds of sacrifices: burnt offerings, meat offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings for sins both intentional and accidental. Different  kinds of offerings have different rules regarding what is to be sacrificed and how it is to be done. There’s a disturbing little story in Chapter 10 about what happens when the instructions aren’t followed exactly. God sends down fire from heaven and incinerates two of Aaron’s sons for not observing the correct worship protocol. If that weren’t disturbing enough, Aaron and his surviving family members are forbidden from any outward expression of mourning, lest they befall a similar fate.

The next chapters detail various prohibitions and commandments, mostly regarding “eat this not that” dietary constraints, hygiene practices, and sexual taboos.  Pork and rabbit are merely forbidden foods, while shrimp and lobster are called abominations. It’s okay to eat grasshoppers and crickets, but not worms. Not only must “unclean” foods not be eaten, they must not even be touched, and if they are touched accidentally a complicated cleansing ritual is prescribed. Cleansing rituals are also prescribed for menstruating and childbearing women, and for men following any kind of emission of semen, including but not limited to intercourse. There are two whole chapters on dealing with leprosy, which seems to be a broad term applied not only to various skin diseases, but also to mold and mildew problems in clothing and buildings. Certain sexual practices are forbidden, including “lying with a man as with a woman” and having sex with a menstruating woman. Tattoos and certain kinds of hair and beard styles are forbidden. Blasphemers and children who curse their parents are subject to the death penalty. A fair amount of space is given to economic justice issues, including a prohibition against charging interest on loans and the establishment of the Year of Jubilee, when all loans are forgiven, slaves are freed, and property returned to its original owners.

The last chapters of Leviticus command the observance of various religious observances and festivals, including the Sabbath, Passover, and the Day of Atonement, and gives detailed instructions for how these are to be observed. Leviticus concludes with a list of consequences: good things will come to the people if they obey all God commands, and bad things will happen if they don’t.

So what are we to make of Leviticus? I know some people who would say toss the whole thing out, but I’m not one of them. Although I am not a Biblical inerrantist or literalist, I do have a fairly high view of the Bible in that I believe God inspired the people who wrote it, and God guided the choices of the people who selected which ancient writings should comprise our sacred scriptures. If it’s there, there is a reason, and I will generally emulate Jacob by wrestling with God until I have found an explanation that makes sense to me.  As far as Leviticus is concerned, I try to understand it in its historical context, and to look for the principles behind the rules. I think that’s what Jesus taught. He repeatedly made comments like “you have heard it said…but I say” with reference to commandments dealing with murder, adultery, false witness, and lex talionis. I think that’s what he meant when he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.”

I see the overriding principle of Leviticus as holiness: “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” I understand “holy” to mean “set apart for a purpose”, and that purpose is to demonstrate love: love for God, and love for our fellow human beings.  The principle doesn’t change, but the application of the principle as expressed in rules might differ in different cultures and different times. The Israelite people weren’t to live like the cultures surrounding them, whose practices were often deplorably exploitative and cruel. They were to be different in a good way, so that other people would see that there was a better way to live, and perhaps be drawn to it and to God.

If we think of principles rather than rules, and the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, we will begin to appreciate Leviticus in a new way. Here’s what it says to me:

Sin is whatever separates human beings from God and their fellow human beings in a bad way, one that causes harm.  Sometimes we do hurtful things on purpose and sometimes we don’t mean to cause harm, but get it wrong and hurt people anyway. God takes sin seriously because he wants us to have shalom- peace and harmony and wholeness and connection. God is smart enough and loving enough to figure out ways around our tendency to break things, and fix them.  God wants us to be holy-not  to be different in weird, arbitrary ways, but to be different in positive, practical ways- from all that is wrong in the world around us. By so being, and doing, we show hurting people the way to shalom. And I think that’s good news.

Exodus: Who is God, Anyway?

 

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,  and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”  God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever,and this my title for all generations.
 

There are a lot of good stories in Exodus, but this one is pivotal to me because it seems to show the roots of ethical monotheism.  At this point in the history of the people that would one day become the Jews, the idea that there was only one god hadn’t really caught on, even among those who identified themselves as Abraham’s descendants. There was a god for the Israelite people, and different gods for the Egyptian and Canaanite peoples. Different gods controlled different territories, so if you moved to a different location you might find your god less powerful than the god that was native to that territory.

Furthermore, the Israelite god had been seemingly inactive for quite a while. 400 years had elapsed between the time of Joseph and the time of Moses, and the children of Israel had languished in slavery for most of that time. They’d heard stories, sure, but God seemed awfully silent. Maybe he didn’t come with them into Egypt? Maybe the Egyptian gods were more powerful? Nerd that I am, I imagine Moses’s encounter with the burning bush to feel a bit like the scene in “The Force Awakens” where Han Solo shows up and tells an incredulous Rey: “There were stories of what happened.” “It’s true, all of it.”

What’s most interesting to me in this story is God’s seemingly cryptic answer when Moses asks him to identify himself.  God responds “I am who I am”. God can’t be named because he can’t be constrained by the limits of the human mind. God can’t be defined; he just is. God refuses to be confined to any kind of box we might want to put him in for purposes of understanding and/or control. That includes the Bible, which points us to God but is not God.

For the children of Abraham, this concept of monotheism took quite a few more years to sink in to the point where they would proclaim their core statement of faith in the Shema as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. It’s fascinating to watch their understanding of God grow through the centuries, from a tribal god who fought for Team Israel when they were good and against them when they were bad, to a universal God who is not limited to space or time and cares about all people.

When I hear some religious figures today saying “Muslims, Christians, and Jews don’t worship the same God” I have to wonder if we still don’t understand the concept of monotheism. If there is one God, there is one God. Different people may have different understandings of what that God is like, but that doesn’t change the one “I Am”. It’s rather like the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, who touched different parts of the elephant and “saw” it quite differently. The fact that they perceived it as a wall, a tree, a snake, or a rope did not mean there were many elephants. A finite mind has trouble with the concept of an infinite God.

In God’s speech to Moses, he reveals himself not only as an undefinable “I am”, but as concerned for those who are powerless, mistreated, and oppressed. An ethical God was a relatively novel concept at this time, as any student of ancient mythologies can attest. The gods might be immortal and omnipotent, but their morality was severely lacking. They remind me of the character “Q” in Star Trek…powerful but self-centered beings who meddle in the affairs of humanity for their own entertainment.  In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the gods destroy the world with a flood because they are bothered by how noisy humans are.

It’s also fascinating that God, who I would suppose could miraculously transport the enslaved Israelites from Egypt to Canaan if he chose to do so, enlists Moses to help him accomplish his goals. That’s interesting to me, because that’s the way I think God works most of the time: he works through and with people. He enlists us as his partners in accomplishing his vision for the world, even though we are flawed and finite and will invariably make mistakes.  If you read the rest of the Exodus story, you’ll see how imperfect Moses was, from his initial reluctance to get involved to his famous temper. God is like a parent who enlists their child for help in some household chore, knowing that they could accomplish the task more quickly and efficiently alone. The person is more important than the task

God is one, and won’t be confined to the boxes of our thinking. God is ethical, and desires the well-being of all creation. Yet, this God invites us to be his partners. God changes us, and we change the world for the better. And that’s good news.

Genesis: Wrestling with God

 

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon. Genesis 32:22-32.

This has always been an intriguing story to me, one that poses more questions than answers. First, a little background on how Jacob came to be in this particular place and state of mind. Jacob’s story begins in Genesis 27, and it’s a great story. It beats any soap opera or reality TV series I’ve ever seen.

Many years earlier, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to trick Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. Esau was rather understandably upset, which caused. Jacob to flee from the area in fear for his life. While on the road, Jacob has a dream in which he tries to cut a deal with God: You bless me, and I’ll serve you. Jacob spends the next couple of decades with his mother’s relatives, who live a safe distance away from his angry brother, but finds his Uncle Laban to be an equal match for his own devious mind. Jacob the cheater often finds himself cheated. Eventually he decided that he’d be better off taking his chances with his brother than with his uncle and cousins, and heads for home, taking with him everything he owns. Hoping to placate his brother, he sends an impressive selection of gifts ahead of him, which I always imagine as something like the scene in Disney’s “Aladdin” where Prince Ali enters Agrabah preceded by all the dramatic showmanship Genie can imagine. Despite all his careful scheming and planning, Jacob doesn’t really know how things are going to turn out.  No wonder he had a sleepless night!

Who was the mysterious man who wrestled with Jacob until daybreak? Was it God? Jacob certainly seemed to think so. If it was God, why did God need to cheat to win? Couldn’t God have quickly and easily overpowered a mere human being? Why would God have to ask Jacob to let him go, and actually concede defeat? What does it mean for God to rename Jacob Israel because “you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome”? What did Jacob overcome? Was it really God, or something in himself?

This story only makes sense to me when I understand it as a mental rather than a physical wrestling match, but I don’t think it really matters. Whatever actually happened that night beside the Jabbok, Jacob was forever changed by the encounter, and to me, that’s the most important outcome.  As J K Rowling wrote, “Just because it happens in your head doesn’t mean that it’s not real”.

What this story says to me is that first of all, God meets us where we are. If our own efforts and errors have left us mired in the metaphorical mud of the River Jabbock, God is willing to get down in the mud with us. Jacob was not a particularly admirable character. He was a schemer, a liar, and a cheater who seemed to think he could play tit-for-tat with God and win. His very dysfunctional family seemed to have picked up on most of his least admirable traits. Despite karma repeatedly coming back to bite him, he never really seemed to learn its lesson. Still, God continued to reach out to him, even when it must have been awfully inconvenient and seemingly futile. This is comforting to me, because I have made, am making, and will make plenty of mistakes in life.  God doesn’t wait for us to get everything right before initiating a relationship. He is with us, in spite of us.

Secondly. it’s OK to wrestle with God. I appreciate the long Jewish tradition of arguing with God. In this passage, the very origin of the name “Israel” is apparently attributed to this kind of boldness, and it didn’t start or end with Jacob. Abraham argued with God about the number of righteous people needed to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, Moses argued with God on more than one occasion when it came to an appropriate punishment for the recalcitrant Israelites in the wilderness, and Job actually wanted to take God to court and sue for unfair treatment!  Many times when it comes to life, not to mention theology, there are questions that don’t have easy or pat answers. God seems to take questioning and doubting in stride. Not only does God not mind; the struggle often leads a person to see God more clearly. At the conclusion of his struggle, Jacob receives God’s blessing. Job rebounds from despair to proclaim “My ears had heard of you (God) but now my eyes have seen you”. “Doubting Thomas” cries “My Lord and my God!” when Jesus invites him to see and touch his resurrected body.

I don’t know exactly what all was going on in Jacob’s mind that night as he wrestled with God. I do think he’d agree with me that doubts, questions, and struggle are not opposed to faith, but part of it. And that’s good news to me.

52- Week Bible Challenge

I’ve accepted a Facebook challenge to blog through the Bible in 2016. Here’s the challenge:

I have been thinking of an idea for some time and want to make an offer/suggestion.
Many of my friends know that there are 27 books in the New Testament and 39 books in the OT. However, in the Ta’anach – the Hebrew Bible – there are 24 books. Using the Ta’anach order, that makes 51 books.
I invite my Bible-studying and -inspired friends to write a post each week of 2016 focusing on ONE passage or theme on a Bible book. You would then have an extra week for a theme of your choice.
You don’t HAVE to go in order; you could break the order for Easter or special occasions or a significant future event as yet unknown. But the goal is to touch all 51 books.
Of course, that means that Jude and 2 Thessalonians get exactly one week, as do Isaiah and John and Genesis. And the Book of the 12 gets only one week.
The “Torah” – 5 books; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
The Early and Later Prophets (the “Nevi’im” – 8 books); Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (minor prophets)
The “Ketuvim” (Writings – 11 books)
Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles
A little background in some cases would be enjoyable and helpful, i.e., why Joshua and Judges are in the Nevi’im but Daniel is not or why Ezra/Nehemiah is one book in the Ta’anach.
Or just post a favorite or meaningful passage.
So – you are invited. The gauntlet is thrown.